In 1939, the advertising campaign for Ninotchka consisted of the phrase: “Garbo laughs”. The gag was not an in-joke: even the lowest form of film goer knew that Greta Garbo was supposed to be classy and solemn, an actress for the superior, MGM parts.
It is interesting to think about another advertising campaign, which had come about in 1934-5, and could have been called: Mussolini laughs. In the twenties, Mussolini’s government made a conscious effort to distance fascism from laughter. Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci, in an essay entitled Rire sans eclat – laughing discretely.
The fascist regime was officially serious. They were serious down to the small details. For instance, a memo was sent to the newspapers in 1936 that, after some deliberation, it was decreed that the schedule for theaters would henceforth be anno teatrale instead of anno comico – comico being a word that meant not only comedy, but also theater in general. And Mussolini was very conscious of his photo-geny: while he laughed in private, at things like Laurel and Hardy films, his public presence was unsmiling, and often, scowling. The scowl, though, had been so bandied about by caricaturists outside of Italy that the campaign to show that Mussolini smiles was devised as a counter-blow. It was also part of the campaign to show that Italy was back as a European power. The war in Ethiopia was accompanied by the campaign to show a jovial, or more jovial, Mussolini. Then, according always to Matard-Bonucci, World War 2 returned Mussolini to his official sourpuss image.
During the interwar period, that is, the 20s and 30s, there was a tendency to examine laughter from the angle of philosophical anthropology. The fascination with tears and laughter came about as a dialectical opposite of the anthropological interest in collective emotions – the expression of emotions that were obligatory in certain social settings. Georges Bataille in his dossier on the pineal eye – with its mixture of brilliant insight and brilliant kookiness – made a psychoanalytically charged connection between laughter and excretion: “The interpretation of laughter as a spasmodic process of the sphincter muscles of the buccal origice, analogous to the sphincter muscles of the anal orifice during defecation, is probably the only satisfying one, on the condition that one attends, in both case, of the primordial place in human existence of such spasmodic processes for excretory purposes.” For Bataille, the Mussolinian grimace was at the very heart, then, of fascism: a literal existential constipation.
Buytendjik and Plessner, in Groningen (the Netherlands) were working from another angle on collective psychology and its expressions, such as tears and laughter – the angle of ethology. Bataille, as well, grounded his work in a (mostly poetic) reference to primates, but Buytendjik actually observed animals - frogs - in the lab. These two put into motion a double movement: first, the reduction of human culture to a collectivity of muscular movements; and second, to building a plane of signs and meanings – on these movements. In this sense, laughter and tears have a privileged place. They are certainly forms of “excretion”, but they are seemingly feeling-driven. Or it should be said that they are interpreted as feeling-driven. Tears that are not provoked by, say, a cold wind or other elements in the environment, are not the same as sweat, even though, physically, the drop of sweat and the tear-drop are pretty much the same. Yet of course even sweat can be captured by emotion – as any reader of thrillers knows, sweat streams down your face when you are exerting yourself to disarm a bomb. The amount of sweat is disproportionate to the amount of exertion – the remainder, then, has to be explained in some way.
Plessner finished his work, Tears and Laughter, in 1941. In a footnote, he discusses whether laughter is “proper” to animals as well. This was a topic taken up in an essay by Robert Musil in his Posthumous Papers of a Living Person. It is a small essay, but well worth putting in this little mosaic.
Can a horse laugh?
A well known psychologist wrote once wrote down the sentence: “… for the animal does knows neither laughing nor smiling”
This encourages me to tell the story of how I once saw a horse laugh. I thought up to now that this is an everyday phenomenon, and didn’t think of making anything special out of it; however, if it is so rare, I will gladly go into some detail.
Now, this was before the war; it could be that since the war, horses no longer laugh. The horse was hitched to a railing that went around a small courtyard. The sun was shining. The sky was darkblue. The air was extremely mild, although a glance at the calendar showed it was February. And in opposition to all this divine comfortableness there was no human counterpart. In a word, I foiund myself in Rome, on a route before the gates, and the border between the modest outskirts of the city and the beginning of the countryside of Campagna.
The horse, too, was a Compagna horse: young and graceful, with a wellformed, small profile, that wasn’t at all pony-ish, but one which a large rider would look like an adult on a doll’s seat. It was being curried by a jolly lad, the sun shone on its pelt, and in its shoulders it was ticklish. Now the horse had, so to speak, four shoulders, which makes it two times more ticklish than a man. Outside of which, the horse seemed to have a particularly sensitive spot on the innerside of its shoulder, and everytime this was touched, it couldn’t help but laugh.
Thus when the curry brush came near the spot, it laid its ears back, became restless, wanted to bump it away with its muzzle and when it couldn’t, it showed its teeth. The curry brush, however, marched happily on, stroke for stroke, and the lips now gave more and more a sight of the teeth in its mouth, while the ears were ever more laid back and the little horse stamped from one hoof to the other.
And suddenly it began to laugh. It bared its teeth. It sought to bump with its muzzle the boy who was tickling it, as strongly as it could, to brush him away; in the same way that a peasant girl would have done this with her hand, and without wanting to bite him. It tried, as well, to turn with its whole body to block him. But the boy had the advantage. And when he came with the comb in the neighborhood of the shoulders, the horse couldn’t hold it in. Its whole body shuddered, it pulled its lips back from its teach, and far as it could, and it behaved for a second exactly like a person, who one was tickling so much that he could not laugh any more.
The learned sceptic will interject that it could not laugh at all. In response let me say that this is correct in so far as of the both of them the one that neighed with laugher was the boy. But both were visibly playing together, and as soon as one of them began, there could be no doubt, the even the horse wanted to laugh and waited for what was coming next.
So learned skepticism should limit itself to the claim that the animal does not have the ability to laugh at jokes.But the horse is not always to blame, there.